Sunday, 16 December 2012

Why are my photos so washed-out?

A correspondent on Flickr asked me why her photos taken with her Canon SX220 compact are pale and washed-out compared to mine taken with the same camera. This subject comes up a lot so I thought I'd copy and paste my answer for those of you relatively new to photography. Here's what I wrote:

"The simple answer is that the washed-out photo is straight out of the camera, whereas mine has had some post-processing. Let me explain:

The sensor (the part that records the picture) in even a modern camera can't detect as big a range of light and colour as the human eye can. If you were to take a photo, print it out at home, then take it back to the same location and hold it up, you'll see that compared to reality the photo will lack contrast - it will look washed out and the colours won't be as saturated. So a good photographer will, after copying his photos to a hard disk and backing them up, open them in a photo editing program to adjust for this. This is known as post--processing.

The most popular editing software is Photoshop CS, and it's very expensive, but it allows you to do a lot. You can not only bring back the contrast and colour to your photos, you can also create composite photos, for example, putting your subject onto a new background. Photoshop has a great many other functions, many of which aren't needed by the photographer.

The second most popular software is Lightroom and this is a lot less expensive but doesn't do as much; it's great at managing your photos and adjusting contrast and colour, and allows you to go further; for example, you can use an Adjustment brush to alter small areas of your picture, making them lighter or darker, sharper or blurrier, warmer or cooler, and so on. And it has a spot-healing tool to get rid of small unwanted objects such as sensor spots - caused by dust on the camera's sensor, as well as other features useful for the photographer.

There's also a cut-down version of Photoshop called Elements which does almost everything the average photographer might need to do. This is even cheaper than Lightroom and includes a photo management suite as well as the editor.

A free alternative to Photoshop is Gimp, which does a lot more than Elements, but fewer people use it which might mean that it takes longer to get help if you have a problem with it.

There are many other photo editing and post-processing programs, far too many for me to list. But there is one that I recommend to beginners. It's called Snapseed and you can get it for Windows, Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Android phones and tablets. It doesn't cost very much compared to the others and can do most of what beginners to photography might want to do. It's very easy to use and there are step-by-step video tutorials on the Snapseed website.

I hope I've explained well enough what the problem is and some possible solutions."

I should add the usual disclaimer that I have nothing to do with Nik Software (who produce Snapseed) as a company other than being a user and a big fan of their software.

Monday, 12 November 2012

World Press Photo Exhibition 2012

Press photography must be an extremely hard job to do. Not necessarily in terms of the learning and technique involved - after all, the spray-and-pray paparazzo counts as a press photographer - but more in terms of the subjects involved: war, destructive storms, hardship and poverty to name a few. Every year this exhibition includes some photos that are difficult to look at for long, including the grief-stricken faces and the dead bodies, and this year is no exception.

So it's not suitable for young children, but everyone else who is interested in photography should see it, in my opinion, so that we not only learn more about the world but also so that we come to appreciate the job these people do in bringing us the news.

Next time you consider whether to pack your ND grad filters for that scenic landscape walkabout, or whether to pack a long lens for a bit of street action in the local market, consider also the guy lugging a lot of heavy kit about inside a lethal war zone.

World Press Photo Exhibition 2012
Until 27 November 2012 Free admission
Daily 10.00 - 23.00
Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall
Belvedere Road

Cartier-Bresson - A Question of Colour

Given that I'm someone who isn't fond of black and white photography, and who thinks that processing colour photos into black and white sucks the life out of most of them, why would I be reviewing an exhibition featuring the photos of one of the most well-known street photographers who shot almost exclusively in black and white?

The answer is in the nature of the exhibition. Henri Cartier-Bresson thought that black and white photography couldn't be bettered. The curator of the exhbition, William E. Ewing, sees the exhibition as a 'challenge and response' - the photos of the master showing the 'decisive moment' that he was so good at capturing, and some of the photographers that Mr Ewing considers as making 'great strides' towards achieving the same end using colour photography.

The exhibition includes a number of black and white prints of some of Cartier-Bresson's work, though not necessarily his best-known, interspersed with prints by other photographers from different eras, including the modern.

It seems to me that one of the best examples of Cartier-Bresson's 'decisive moment' is the photo of a man leaping over a puddle, titled _Derriere la Gare Saint-Lazare_ which can be seen here. Yet I don't recall seeing a print of this anywhere in the exhibition. In fact, this 'decisive moment' seems to be missing from some of the photos on display, both Cartier-Bresson's and those by other photographers.

No matter, this isn't the main point of the exhibition.

Since admission to the exhibition is free, it's well worth the journey to Somerset House to make your own mind up as to whether the curator has fulfilled his aim - for it is his and not the aim of the photographers featured in the exhibition.

People with mobility impairments should note that the exhibition is at the south side of Somerset House, across a lot of very bumpy tiles from the main entrance. There is a lift that goes from the Embankment straight up to the exhibition.

Cartier-Bresson - A Question of Colour
Runs to 27 January 2013
Free admission
Somerset House
South Building  Strand, London WC2R 1LA

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize Exhibition

Featuring portrait photography by contemporary photographers, the Taylor Wessing makes its annual visit to the National Portrait Gallery. As in previous years, I found many of the portraits to lack a certain something. Whether that's because these days a lot of photography (much of mine included) seems to aim to grab the attention or simply because the photographers chose subjects and/or settings that fail to inspire.

That's not to say that the exhibition isn't to be enjoyed - I spent more than half an hour looking at the few dozen photos on display, and these days £2 isn't a great deal to pay for half an hour's enjoyment.

The Taylor Wessing exhibition runs to 17 February 2013. While you're there, why not have a look at the other photographic exhibitions currently showing, including Mario Testino's _Royal Portraits_.

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize
Tickets £2
National Portrait Gallery
St Martin's Place, WC2H 0HE
Open 10:00-18:00
Thursdays and Fridays until 21:00

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Autumn Collection

A tree in Kensington Gardens, London

It's that time of the year when nature goes out in a blaze of glory as the leaves fly south for winter and the countryside dons its white winter coat. Some of us will stay indoors raking through our photo collection for some pictures to upload, while others will risk the rain and the mist to make sure our autumn collection is as full as possible. The risk isn't so much to ourselves as to our expensive cameras. Today's mobile phones are still cheaper than a good DSLR and more weather-proof than most, and easier to slip out of a pocket for a quick snapshot in the wet weather.

Bridge in Morden Hall Park, Surrey

Purists may scoff at the capabilities of mobile phone cameras but sensors of 8 MP or more are sufficient to produce quality photos. They might scoff louder at the use of pre-built filters but apps such as Vignette for Android can give a look to your photos that can take a while to set up and use in your post-processing software. And with all of the filters and settings available in a good photo app you won't simply be producing clones of everyone else's photos. So long as you experiment with those filters and settings, that is.

A hut by the River Wandle in Surrey

Playing with Vignette, I came across a set of options that gave me a nice autumn look that I want to share with you. This photo of a tree in Kensington Gardens in London gives you an idea of that look. If you haven't got Vignette, you can either get it in the Android Play Store or you could try setting up another photo app with similar settings.

Fallen Autumn leaves

It's easy to set up, too. The first thing to do is set up a filter and a frame size. In Vignette, tap the menu button then the rightmost icon. Tap 'Filter' then 'Normal (Generic film effect)'.  If you want to emulate my square-ratio pictures, click 'Frame' then 'Square' then click 'Square' below it. Tap the Back button to return to Vignette's main screen.

A country path

Back on the main screen, tap the middle icon then White Balance, and select Cloudy-daylight. Press the Back key again to return to the main screen.

About to fall

These settings work nicely in Vignette to give you the kind of effect shown in these photos, but whether you can change the White Balance setting might depend on your phone, or your tablet. It's possible on my Samsung Galaxy S3 but the option just isn't there on my Nexus 7 tablet. Not that I'd be using my N7 to take photos in any case.

A willow hangs over a pond

I'd love to see any shots you take using these settings. Or if you emulate this look in another app, I'd be delighted to know how you did it, so please put the details in a comment to this post.

Autumn grasses

Monday, 21 May 2012

The New Photographers' Gallery

The Photographers' Gallery opened up in its new building in London's Ramillies Street on Saturday so I thought I'd go along and see what's what. They had previously moved in a year or so back and then closed down, at least partly because of accessibility issues. When I wrote to them about this, they wrote back promising a new lift. They kept their promise.

There are currently two exhibitions showing. The first is on floor 2, the Wolfson Gallery (there are 5 floors in total) and is by the Raqs Media Collective. A still photo fades in of workers sitting in an office and, after a while, the blades of the ceiling fan start to rotate. A short time later, the photo fades to black. Rinse and repeat throughout the entire day. This is the kind of thing they used to do at the old building. The kind of thing that used to have me walking out after a few minutes muttering, "Art is whatever you can get away with". I was surprised how long some people stood watching this display, especially since there were no chairs in the room.

The second exhibition is on floors 4 and 5, is by Edward Burtinsky and is titledThe End of Oil. I didn't count how many photos are in this one but even considering that they are large, there are enough to keep you occupied for quite a while. When I say that the photos are large, I'm guessing that they are about 4 feet wide. And they're very detailed, and processed as HDR. Don't let that put you off as they are HDR done properly: lots of detail in the highlights and shadows, and with fantastic tone and colour.

I should warn you that you might spend quite a while studying the astonishing amount of detail the photographer has managed to capture and to bring out in post-processing. You might also learn something about the extraction and refinement of oil, before it disappears forever. As usual, technical notes on the cameras, lenses and settings used are not given, but no matter. This is definitely one to go and see.

There are other features of the new Gallery that make it worth a visit. On floor 3 is the Eranda Studio where you will find a camera obscura which, for some reason, wasn't open on the first day. On this floor, you can also see and take part in a project called Touchstone, where you are invited to study one particular photo and write your own observations and responses to it on a card which you drop into a box. Each week the Gallery's favourite response is featured, and more contributions posted on the website. Also on floor 3 is a small study room to which you gain access by appointment.

To round off the tour, floor 1 contains the admin offices, while on the ground floor is the cafe and information desk. The bookshop and print sales room are in the basement.

I found the bookshop to be rather cramped but on opening day this is perhaps only to be expected. Its contents are very much as they were back in the old Gallery at Great Newport Street. The focus of the books is still very much on the photo as art; there are few technical books and how-tos. As before, they sell a nice range of photo postcards but you could have trouble getting to the till if its as crowded as when I visited. Aficionados of lo-fi photography will be pleased to know that the stock of Polaroid, Lomo, and other assorted old and new cameras also made the move.

The Photographers' Gallery is at 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW. Phone 020 7087 9300. Email, website
Open seven days a week:

Monday – Saturday 10.00 – 18.00
Thursday 10.00 – 20.00
Sunday 11.30 – 18.00

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

On Fun and Liberation

Vignette, Camera360, LittlePhoto, FX Photo Editor, and others all have more effects and filters than Instagram. And almost any other Android photo editing app (for example, PicSay Pro, FX Photo Editor) has far more real editing features than Instagram. But neither of these factors is the real point of Instagram.

It's about taking a quick shot of something you find interesting, quickly applying an effect that might otherwise take much longer in Lightroom/Photoshop/whatever, and uploading it onto a photo-sharing site in less than a minute. Then depending on your followers, the photo might get thousands of 'likes' over the next day or so. And if it's considered to be good, you'll get more and more followers. It's a 'social' app much more than it is a photography app. Its addictive appeal is in quickly creating images that other people will find attractive. And, of course, there's a huge ego-stroking element to it. Not unlike Flickr, but perhaps more instant.

I've used it for a bit less than a week now and for me the main attraction is that I find myself getting photos of subjects I wouldn't normally choose, such as the one shown above. I feel that I can point my camera at anything just to see how it will come out, rather than having to consider myself a serious photographer. And I don't have to slave over Lightroom for hours. It's fun and it's liberating.

If Facebook wreck it, I'll leave it and won't miss it. But, for now, I'm enjoying using it.


Using Instagram on my phone has brought me right back to the basics of photography. If you want to get a blurred shot of a skateboarder, you need to make sure your shutter speed is fairly slow, given the amount of available light. That's not so easy to do with a phone; at least, not with mine - it doesn't give me manual control over the aperture and shutter speed. So I have to learn how I can affect these settings on my own.

The ceiling in the skateboard park at London's South Bank reflects light more than the dark floor. The graffiti at the back is somewhere in between: a midtone in the light-to-dark scheme of things. So if I angle my phone down, it sees the dark floor and compensates by lightening the whole picture up. This results in a faster shutter speed, which tends to freeze the subject. However, if I angle the phone up so that some of the light ceiling is in the shot, the phone compensates the other way, darkening the picture down. This, as you'd expect, results in a slower shutter speed, so I get my blurred subject.

There is a limit, though. I really wanted a more blurred subject than this. He's just landed on the floor after going across the top of the slab behind him, so I wanted some forward motion blur. But I got more blur from the way his body swivelled as he landed. If I'd had more time I'd have tried as many shots as it takes to get what I want. Or I could have waited for a skateboarder dressed in all-white to come along.

Interesting how a change of camera, with a change of inbuilt functionality, brings us back to the lessons we learnt right at the beginning.

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About This Blog

"It's about capturing the light and making light work for you; and it's about being lazy and making light work of photography."

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